One minute Australian “wellness” personality Pete Evans is posting a barbecued prawn recipe to 1.5 million Facebook followers, the next he is claiming the COVID-19 pandemic is an elaborate global hoax.
During this year of crisis, the ever-smiling, one-time TV chef known as “Paleo Pete” has become a leading purveyor of conspiracy and pseudoscience in Australia.
The pandemic has seen a worldwide explosion of misinformation, with anti-vaccination groups, the far right, libertarians, state-backed trolls and anarchists forging a loose coalition of the disgruntled.
An unlikely mix of celebrities, wellness experts and social media influencers such as Evans have become a powerful vector in that “infodemic.”
While government scientists give earnest daily briefings, Evans turns to social media to question lockdowns and rubbish the use of masks.
The content is often upbeat — appearing in a wetsuit with blue eyes beaming, riffing about the joys of being back surfing after injury. He signs off e-mails with the signature: “Cook with Love and Laughter!”
However, his most popular content is often recycled from US conspiracy theories. These posts prompt long threads that echo QAnon movement talking points, claiming a “plandemic” manufactured crisis by global elites to enforce lucrative mass vaccinations and control humanity.
A post of US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci, who has led the US government’s response to every epidemic since the 1980s, being questioned over a potential COVID-19 vaccine was a particular hit for Evans.
The post attracted more than 500,000 views, and a blizzard of conspiratorial comments against vaccinations and traditional government rule.
According to data from social media tracker CrowdTangle, Evans’ reach has increased since the pandemic began, growing by up to 15,000 users a week, rather than the net loss he often used to see.
“People are searching for answers,” said Mathew Marques, a lecturer in social psychology at La Trobe University in Melbourne. “You’ve got, I guess, charlatans and snake oil salesmen offering a cure.”
Evans denies trafficking in lies and denounces what he calls “fear-based propaganda.”
“The pandemic is a hoax. It is as simple as that” Evans said, claiming that wearing masks and social distancing “are in fact damaging our immune system.”
“The reason we have become the No. 1 selling health and lifestyle author in this country is because what we share actually keeps people healthy,” he said.
Academics have called the mash-up of New Age thinking with conspiracy theories as “conspirituality.”
“They all see themselves in some way as rebels, as a resistance,” said Axel Bruns, a professor at the Digital Media Research Centre at Queensland University of Technology.
Those interested in healthy lifestyles and spirituality might have been primed for COVID-19 conspiracies — given existing distrust of Western medicine and corporate interests.
The charismatic “laid back, stereotypical Aussie bloke” appeal of Evans has helped him weave a narrative which pits him against powerful establishment interests, Marques said.
“These kind of big pharma conspiracy theories ... these seem to be kind of interlinked with this rise of a wellness alternative,” he said.
The spread of Evans’ beliefs can be seen online, and on the streets of coronavirus-hit Australian cities.
“He’s bringing to light, to the people in Australia and the people around the world, how corrupt the governments are,” said Evans fan and naturopath Sheridan Lee at an anti-lockdown rally in Melbourne.
“If it has to be a celebrity and influencer to bring this out, then so be it,” she said.
Fellow Melbourne protester Dellacoma Rio said that he regularly listens to Evans’ livestreams and agreed with his promotion of anti-vaccination views.
“I feel like if you follow the money you see who’s getting paid to do things and where money is coming from,” Rio said.
For some of Evans’ critics, the question of money is pertinent.
He sells pricey “Thoughtful Food” products such as “dehydrated beef bone broth with wattleseed, lemon myrtle and kakadu plum,” and has promoted an A$15,000 (US$10,745) “light machine” — which looks like a psychedelic kitchen blender — to help against COVID-19.
Evans denied pitching the “biocharger” for use against the disease, despite video evidence of him telling followers it had “recipes” for the “Wuhan coronavirus” — a claim that resulted in a fine from the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration.
“It’s hard not to look past the fact that many people offering these supposed cures or alternatives seem to be profiting from them,” Marques said.
Authorities complain that the spread of such disinformation also weakens social cohesion, which is needed to tackle the pandemic.
“The tinfoil hat-wearing brigade are alive and well in our community,” Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Luke Cornelius said.
“They’re taking every opportunity to leverage the current situation to serve their own ridiculous notions about so-called sovereign citizens, about constitutional issues and about how 5G is going to kill your grandkids,” he said, describing the claims as “batshit crazy nonsense.”
French authorities yesterday said that they would close a Paris mosque as part of a clampdown on radical Islam that has yielded over a dozen arrests following the beheading of a teacher who had shown his pupils a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed. The mosque in a densely populated suburb northeast of Paris had disseminated a video on its Facebook page days before Friday’s gruesome murder, railing against teacher Samuel Paty’s choice of material for a class discussion on freedom of expression, a source close to the investigation said. The French Ministry of the Interior said the mosque in Pantin, which has
LONGSTANDING NEUTRALITY: The US request came as it vied for influence in Southeast Asia with China, but Indonesia has never let foreign militaries operate there Indonesia this year rejected a proposal by the US to allow its P-8 Poseidon maritime surveillance planes to land and refuel there, four senior Indonesian officials familiar with the matter have said. US officials made multiple “high-level” approaches in July and August to Indonesia’s defense and foreign ministers before Indonesian President Joko Widodo rebuffed the request, the officials said. Representatives for Indonesia’s president and defense minister, the US Department of State’s Office of Press Relations and the US embassy in Jakarta did not respond to requests for comment. Representatives for the US Department of Defense and Indonesian Minister of Foreign Affairs Retno Marsudi
COVID-19 UNDER CONTROL: The two prime ministers agreed to ease entry bans, and allow short-term business visits and reopen flights between Vietnam and Japan Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, in his first overseas summit since taking office last month, yesterday agreed with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc to step up defense and security cooperation in the face of China’s expanding influence in the region. In talks in Hanoi, Suga and Phuc set up a basic agreement allowing Japan to export defense equipment and technology to Vietnam. Japan has been pursuing such agreements to bolster ties with Southeast Asian nations and sustain its own defense industry. Suga said that his four-day trip to Vietnam and Indonesia would be key to pursuing the “free and open Indo-Pacific” vision
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday night said that he has no problem with being held responsible for the many killings under his crackdown on drugs, and that he is ready to face charges that could land him in jail, but not charges of crimes against humanity. Duterte’s televised remarks were among his clearest acknowledgement of the prospects that he could face a deluge of criminal charges for the bloody campaign he launched after taking office in the middle of 2016. Police have reported that at least 5,856 drug suspects have been killed in raids and more than 256,000 others arrested since